It may take time, but it's hard for a Catholic educator to publicly praise the work of nuns who have bravely leapt "beyond Jesus" without drawing some flack -- especially in the Internet age. During this era of crisis and decline, some Catholic religious orders have chosen to enter a time of "sojourning" that involves "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus," Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink told a 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
"Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian," added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine."
It took time, but ripples from her address have grown into waves of debate about the health of many religious orders, especially in light of reports that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is supervising a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The question is whether many sisters have rejected doctrines stated in Vatican documents focusing on the male priesthood, homosexuality and the Catholic Church's role in the salvation of souls. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- played a crucial role in the development of these documents.
Catholic conservatives are convinced that Brink crossed an important line.
"If you're going to be Post-Christian, then be Post-Christian. I don't say that with snark. It's just reality," argued Catholic blogger Amy Welborn of Beliefnet. "If you've moved on -- move on. Step out from the protective mantle of identity that gives you cachet, that of 'Catholic nun.' "
However, it's important to note that this "Post-Christian," "sojourning" strategy was only the third of four strategies critiqued by Brink in the online text of her presentation, entitled "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century (.pdf)." Her goal was to urge leaders of Catholic religious orders to make clear, if painful choices in an age in which "indecision" is the proverbial elephant in the living room.
Sister Laurie began with this assumption: "Old concepts of how to live the Life are no longer valid."
The first option, she said, is "death with dignity and grace," as opposed to becoming a "zombie congregation" that staggers on with no purpose. This option must be taken seriously since the average age of the 67,000 sisters and nuns in the United States is 69. Many retreat ministries are closing and large "mother houses" are struggling with finances, while some congregations no longer invite or accept new candidates.
Meanwhile, Brink noted with sadness, some orders have chosen to turn back the clock -- thus winning the favor of Rome. "They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. ... Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying," she said.
Finally, some women are fighting on, hoping to achieve reconciliation someday with a changed, egalitarian church hierarchy. Thus, the current conflicts in American Catholicism cannot be hidden, she said.
"Theologians are denied academic freedom. Religious and laywomen feel scrutinized simply because of their biology. Gays and lesbians desire to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes," said Brink. Many Catholics also oppose the "ecclesial deafness that refuses to hear the call of the Spirit summoning not only celibate males, but married men and women to serve" as priests.
These religious orders will strive to recruit new sisters and train them to continue the struggle against the "men who control the power in but not the Spirit of the Church," she said. If reconciliation occurs, it will take place in a reformed church.
Right now, she stressed, the Catholic hierarchy is "right to feel alarmed. What is at stake is the very heart of the Church itself."